SALT LAKE CITY — Decades ago, they were nearly zoned out of existence — not just in Salt Lake City, but nationwide.
Low-cost, dorm-style units, known as residential hotels or single-room occupancy housing, were decried in the 1970s and 1980s as "flophouses," plagued with a reputation to breed crime, drugs and deviant lifestyles. Cities across the country essentially eradicated them through zoning.
But Salt Lake City may soon join other cities like New York and Chicago that are either trying to preserve what's left or bring them back in a new, re-imagined way — all to fight homelessness and create another form of affordable housing.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's office has been working on an ordinance change to allow single-room occupancy in more areas of the city. After working its way through the Salt Lake City Planning Commission, it's now headed toward final public hearings before the City Council takes a vote on it, possibly in coming weeks.
Today, only 50 rooms make up what remains of Salt Lake City's single-room occupancy housing stock, down from about 800 in 1978. Those 50 rooms make up the Rio Grande Hotel — built in 1911 for railroad workers, but today still offers low-cost rooms with shared kitchen and bathrooms.
To Pamela Atkinson, a homelessness advocate who spearheaded a focus group to find ways to fill gaps in Utah's new homeless service system, single-room occupancy housing is a "key element" to help prevent homelessness and offer an alternative to emergency shelter.
"It's very important," she said. "There are homeless people who say, 'I don't want an apartment. I don't want that responsibility. I just need a room, and I'm happy to share."
Advocates like Atkinson see opportunity in creating more housing like the rooms offered at the Rio Grande Hotel. They believe the low-cost housing would be appealing to developers and to people transitioning out of homelessness or just seeking a cheap place to live.
Her group has recommended that state officials consider helping build three, 50-unit properties with rents limited to $200 per month or paid by the week if necessary.
But will single-room occupancy housing survive its past reputation? And will cities change their zoning to allow them? Atkinson thinks so.
"The enthusiasm is beginning to spread as people realize it's not the 'flophouses' of the 1980s," she said. "This is something that would be very different."
The ordinance change being proposed by Biskupski's administration includes a provision to require a 24/7, on-site property manager. It would allow single-room occupancy in more zoning districts throughout the city, including high-density commercial districts. Currently, they're only allowed along transit corridors, so along 400 South and North Temple, said Nick Norris, the city's planning director.
"One of the issues we've had is there is not a lot of land available for this type of use in those corridors," Norris said. "So we want to expand it in very high-density districts."
The aim, Norris said, is to create more opportunity for "one of the lowest cost housing types out there," so people who can maybe only afford $20 a night or less have an option other than a homeless shelter.
"Having a room of your own provides a certain level of dignity, but it's also more affordable," Norris said, noting developers can get better "bang for their buck" if they aren't required to put a kitchen and bathroom in every room they build.
The Salt Lake City Council was briefed on the ordinance last week. Some council members, including Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros and Councilwoman Amy Fowler, expressed concerns, worried about how their constituents may view a facility that's managed 24/7.
Fowler said she can "imagine" some of her residents looking at the proposal and saying, "This is another way to say that we're going to have a homeless shelter next to the S-Line."
"I could see how somebody would interpret that as saying, 'Well, if we're going to have somebody 24 hours a day to manage this, well then what really is this turning into?'" Fowler said.
Valdemoros also questioned if the city has to include in its ordinance that the property must be managed 24/7, saying "that's a lot for us to regulate" and may be "overkill."
But Councilman Andrew Johnston said he's "highly supportive" of allowing single-room occupancy in more parts of the city because it "fits everything" the city has been trying to do to address homelessness and affordable housing.
"This is a small niche that tries to bring down that (cost) for a subset of the population whose willing to live in this situation," Johnston said. "The cost is much cheaper."
A hearing to take public comment is slated for April 23, and the council is tentatively scheduled to take action on the ordinance change May 7.